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Category: History

History Corner: Great Fails of World War Two (part 1)

The War Altar’s History Corner is going to spend some time considering great technological “fails” of the Second World War.  We’re going to start with a program developed by the Americans, codename Operation Aphrodite.

In 1943 the Americans and British had a problem.  German U-boats had an indestructible base at Lorient on the western coast of France.  These fortified submarine pens, which boasted 7 meter-thick roofs, were impervious to allied bombing.

Unable to destroy the pens the Allies fire-bombed the town in an effort to kill everyone who worked in the base or supplied it.  On January 15, 1943, the Royal Air Force dropped 20,000 incendiary bombs on the town.  They hit the town seven more times over the next nine weeks.  The town was reduced to rubble and the survivors evacuated.  Submarine operations continued with minimal disruption.  

The British then developed a bunker-buster bomb called the “tallboy.”  This was a 5 ton bomb over 6 meters long.  Dropped from a height of 18,000 feet it would be travelling at 1207 kph (750 mph) when it hit the ground.  These were very difficult bombs to make and use.  Most of them missed, and the one recorded hit on the submarine pens at Lorient failed to penetrate the roof.

Incapable of either destroying the submarine pens or annihilating the supporting population and infrastructure the Allies opted for a new tactic: radio-controlled bombers.  This was Operation Aphrodite.  The plan was to take older B-17 and B-24 bombers, fill them with 9 tons of explosives and then fly them into the Submarine pens using radio control.  Two pilots would fly the drone bomber to 10,000 feet altitude, turn on the RC equipment and then bail out.  Another bomber flying near would then use the radio controls to fly the drone bomber into the target.  A TV camera in the drone cockpit broadcast images of the flight deck instruments back to a pilot in the controlling bomber.  Imagine using a low resolution, black and white version of Skype to drive a car.

Two brave souls were needed to pilot the drone.  The U.S. offered any volunteer pilot the Distinguished Flying Cross.  In addition, every Operation Aphrodite mission counted for five missions.  Twenty-five missions constituted a complete tour of duty (in 1942 the average bomber completed twelve missions before being shot down or wrecked!).

There were fifteen Aphrodite missions from late 1944 until early 1945.  Fourteen failed in spectacular fashion. One flew out of control and crashed in Sweden.  Another blew up prematurely and destroyed an escort plane.  Some were shot down by enemy anti-aircraft guns.  The most famous death was that of Joseph P. Kennedy, the elder brother of JFK.  His Aphrodite drone exploded before he and his co-pilot could bail out.  The U.S. National Archives has the letter that was sent home:

The missions were so ineffective and dangerous that Aphrodite was cancelled after just four months.  The Lorient pens were never targeted and they survived the war intact.  The German garrison surrendered on May 10, 1945.  Fortunately for the Allies they were able to defeat the U-boats at sea.

The Germans, it turns out, were years ahead of the Allies in RC technology.  On September 9, 1943, the British and Americans invaded mainland Italy.  The light cruiser the U.S.S. Savannah provided close-support naval gun fire. On September 11 a single German bomber dropped a Fritz-X radio-controlled bomb.  The crew guided it towards its target and the 320kg warhead struck a turret of the Savannah.  The crew of the Savannah salvaged the ship but it was effectively out of the war.

The Germans hit about a dozen ships with these guided bombs including the HMS Warspite.  A Fritz-X attack sunk the Italian battleship Roma killing most of the crew.  The allies scrambled to develop countermeasures.  British radio jamming proved to be effective and the Normandy landings were carried out under a cloud of electronic jamming to prevent Fritz-X attacks.  Despite the initial spectacular successes of these bombs they were countered quickly and with relative ease.
Operation Aphrodite remains a relatively unknown story of the Second World War.  Probably because it was such a terrible failure for the Allies.  This is unfortunate because the history of Operation Aphrodite also includes the stories of brave people like Joseph Kennedy.  The attempt to hit specific military targets with pin point accuracy, and the failure to achieve this, also provides good context to consider the strategic bombing campaign.  
What other technological ‘fails’ in the Second World War come to mind?  Jagdtiger?  I-400 submarine?

Bristolscale7’s History Corner: Blitzkrieg, by the book

Blitzkrieg–the word evokes images of charging panzers, Stuka dive bombers, and encircled French troops. The purpose of this article is to discuss the accuracy of this general impression and then meditate on the whether or not Flames of War captures this style of offensive warfare on the table top.  So what are we talking about when we use the term?  In practical terms blitzkrieg refers to the mobile warfare doctrine developed by a younger generation of German officers in the 1930s.  These officers argued that armoured forces should be concentrated along a narrow front to achieve a breakthrough in the enemy’s lines.  Many military forces in the 1930s saw armour as primarily a tool for infantry support and tanks were distributed among infantry formations rather than concentrated in armoured divisions.  According to the German model the concentrated mobile forces could exploit breakthroughs and plunge deep behind the enemy lines to destroy logistics and command structures.  At the same time large portions of the enemy would be encircled and eliminated.

Let’s take a look at an actual German operation.  The German strategic offensive for the summer of 1942, Case Blue, involved a huge drive into southern Russia.  Hitler committed a blunder in August when he split Army Group South into two groups.  One group continued to push south to the oil fields.  The other group headed to the Volga and Stalingrad.  As the Germans approached the Volga there was a major engagment west of the Russian village of Kalach.  The German military published a magazine called Signal for popular reading by the troops.  The following maps of the battle of Kalach are taken from it.

In this first map below we see the initial German penetration north of Kalach.  There is a major cut from the north and a broader application of pressure from the south.  Bear two things in mind as you look at this first map.  First, we’re in mid-1942 now and the Soviets and others are now implementing (or attempting) counters to blitzkrieg.  You see it in the two black arrows.  These represent Soviet forces attacking the flanks of the armoured spearhead.  If these attacks succeed then the German armoured forces become encircled, not the Soviets.  The attack failed in this circumstance–beaten off by German grenadiers following up the armoured forces.  The second thing to note is the bulge created by the German advance.  This illustrates the dual purpose of the blitzkrieg: exploit but also encircle.

In the second map below we see that the salient (bulge) is well established.  The Soviet forces attempt two counter-attacks at this point.  One strikes north from the salient while the other attempts to link up by attacking south through the new German lines.  These fail.
Now the Germans pinch off the salient to form the encirclement.  The main German attack cuts across the salient from the south.  Other German forces engage in the north to prevent a Soviet counter attack
In the final map below the salient is reduced and the graphic explains that over 35,000 infantry, 270 tanks, and 560 guns were captured.  Note that the front line to the east of the encirclement takes an offensive posture while the salient itself is captured.

Thus concluded another bloody chapter in the war on the Eastern Front.  This was the last major battle before the Germans arrived at Stalingrad.  We can grasp, even after this short exposition, why the Germans had trouble in Stalingrad–blitzkrieg clearly is more suited to open, mobile warfare than it is to urban warfare.
So does Flames of War capture this?  The first thing to point out is that Flames of War is a company level game.  A German infantry company was just over 100 men, give or take.  In terms of armour, roughly, a company level battle represents a portion of an armoured regiment, one of a couple forming an armoured brigade.  In essence, two 1780 point forces fighting it out represent each player controlling a couple different types of companies–a good chunk of a bigger battle.  In terms of game play, the Flames of War system does an excellent job of capturing mobile warfare.  Concentration of armour is locally powerful, but without support it can be isolated.  The exploitation nature of mobile warfare is also well-represented.  Tanks that punch through defences can wipe out artillery parks and kill command teams.  The 15mm scale helps capture the flavour of this type of warfare.  Flames of War strikes an excellent balance between flavour, playability, and veracity.

Bristolscale7’s History Corner: D-Day

With interest in Flames of War increasing I thought it would be a good idea to go over some of the “fluff.”  Here’s a thing.  It’s the first message sent from General Eisenhower to General Marshall on the morning of 6 June 1944.  I obtained it from the National Archives and Records Administration.  Digital history FTW.   Have a read:

  

 First we note that it’s from SHAEF–Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.  This was the allied command for all U.S., U.K., Canadian, and French forces.  It called the shots and Eisenhower was in charge.  The ability of the allies to coordinate grand strategy was a real strength of the alliance.

The next thing we see is that the telegram is for General Marshall.  He was the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff– the #1 military man in the U.S.  He was Eisenhower’s boss and reported directly to Roosevelt.  Marshall developed U.S. strategy and Roosevelt signed off on it.  Marshall was a nice guy.  He bombed the shite out of Europe and then helped rebuild it after the war with the plan that bore his name.  “Eyes Only” means Marshall is the only one who was supposed to read this.
O.k., let’s get get to the content of the telegram.  Eisenhower says it’s 8:00 a.m. local time.  The airborne operations were about seven hours old at this point, but the first troops to hit the beaches had only been on the ground for ninety minutes.  Eisenhower explains, “I have as yet no information concerning the actual landings nor our progress through beach obstacles.”  In other words, he doesn’t know what the situation is.  Eisenhower was a chain smoker–four packs a day!  Who can blame him?  He was responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.  The next line is, however, quite chilling:  “Communique will not be issued until we have word that leading ground troops are actually ashore.”  What does this mean?  It means that the entire operation–an invasion of 160,00 troops–is going to be kept secret if it fails.  Back in August 1942 five thousand Canadians invaded Dieppe.  Fifteen hundred died and the Germans captured over two thousand.  It was a disaster.  Yet according to Allied news reports the plucky Canadians accomplished their objectives and returned to England for some well-deserved R&R.  A nice way to describe an operation that failed utterly and resulted in over 60% casualties.  Eisenhower is leaving open the possibility of failure on D-Day: June 7 newspaper headlines of a few thousand casualties from a training exercise.  What would have happened if D-Day failed?  To Eisenhower on the morning of June 6 it’s a real possibility.  Stick that in your counter-factual pipe and smoke it.
The middle paragraph contains some good information.  It informs us that 1250 aircraft were involved in airborne operations and that the losses, as far as he knows, were very light.  Mine-sweeping operations and preliminary bombardments appear to have went off without a hitch.  
The last paragraph of the telegram is also noteworthy.  We’ve all seen this photo:
Now you know what Eisenhower was thinking.  In his diary on June 3, 1944, Eisenhower wrote, “Probably no one who does not have to bear the specific and direct responsibility of making the final decision as to what to do can understand the intensity of these burdens.”

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